Belarus native takes adaptive athletics to the mainstream.
By Japhi Westerfield
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, TANYA KHVITSKO – WHO IS QUICKLY BECOMING ONE OF KANSAS CITY’S BEST KNOWN RUNNERS – went for a short three-mile jog south of KU Med Center on a familiar course. Somewhere near State Line and 42nd Street she fell hard. Tanya was trying out some new gear and had an equipment malfunction. When she woke up in the arms of a “cute police officer,” all she could think to do was profusely apologize for being sweaty. That’s how running in Kansas City seems to go for the 25 year old Lenexa grad student. Even injuries that result in a concussion come with an upside.
It wasn’t always that way. Tatsiana Khvitsko was born in Belarus, four and a half years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After the explosion at the Soviet nuclear energy facility (which today is in modern Ukraine), the radiation cloud drifted north and Belarus took much of the resulting radiation. The health fallout from the unprecedented incident was profound. The blast caused 31 immediate deaths, mostly among plant workers and the fireman who fought the resultant blaze. The United Nations reported that nearly 5000 additional emergency workers died from longer term exposure over the next 15 years. Blast zones around the facility, where human activity is restricted and wildlife has moved in, include the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve that extends into Belarus. This and other no man’s lands stand in mute testimony to how the event froze time for many Soviet-era citizens.
But one of the guttural consequences of the disaster was the effect on children born in the fallout zones. The most common problems of these “Chernobyl babies” were thyroid issues, including thyroid cancer. But thyroid disease wasn’t the only malady attributed to the radiation. Khvitsko, who doctors both in Belarus and the US say is one of these Chernobyl babies, was born with missing limbs and deformed fingers on both hands. Before her first birthday she was already a congenital, “below the knee/above the knee” double-amputee. Her parents sent her to live in a boarding school for children with disabilities 300 km north of one of the most poisonous places on earth. She made her first baby steps when she was four years old using heavy wooden prostheses. Most of the time she got around on crutches.
Life improved when she turned five. While she was still living in the boarding school, a group of Kansas City area doctors, on a trip to Belarus with what was then called Project Restoration, learned of Khvitsko and came to examine her at the school. Eventually she was invited to travel to Kansas City for the summer to receive medical treatment and physical therapy. There she was fitted with better prostheses. The therapy helped, but she needed regular treatment, so the doctors arranged for her to start coming t o Kansas C ity every summer. She stayed with an American family who treated her like their own daughter. She started going by the name Tanya when she was stateside.
Khvitsko told me that from the very beginning people in the US treated her differently than back home in Belarus where she could never wear shorts or dresses in public because, as she said, her n e i g h b o r s there felt sorry for her. She never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. Kansas City provided an opportunity for a life less defined by her disability. In 2008 her “American family,” as she now called them, helped her come to the Kansas City to enroll at Mid-American Nazarene College in Olathe. She’s been here ever since.
One day when she was at church, Khvitsko met another woman with prostheses. After studying Tanya’s equipment, the woman said she needed better quality walking legs. During her senior year of college she did some research and found a clinic in Florida that could help her get a new more advanced set of prostheses. She had hoped the new legs would provide better mobility – and a shot at running – but, even though they were far more comfortable than her older units, they still wouldn’t allow her to do anything more than walk. She spent several days at the clinic undergoing therapy and adjusting to her new legs. Then on the last day of her visit the doctors surprised her. Somebody had anonymously donated a blade for Tanya, and along with another prosthesis for the leg that was amputated below the knee, she now had a set of “running legs” as she calls them.
Tanya was elated. Remember, she had had never run before, not once. She told me, “I always tell people now, appreciate your legs. I never had a chance to run. I never had the legs to run. I didn’t even know what it felt like.”
The experience was electrifying.
“When I got a chance to run for the first time, that’s when my confidence went up as an individual and as a female. With my walking legs, I can wear jeans. I can wear long dresses. Nobody knows I have a prosthesis. But when I wear a blade, I can’t hide my legs. If I wore jeans it would look goofy, you know? So that’s when I realized, I am so much more powerful, so much stronger. I am beautiful in my own way because of those legs.”
But the running itself was what surprised her the most at first. For awhile it was the only thing she wanted to do. “When I first put on those running legs, I was running so fast, I felt like I was flying. This was the first time I’d ever run, and it felt like what I’d imagine flying must feel like. I always tell people, in some ways I am flying, because I have no feet. I have no legs at all, so with my blade, I’m really flying.”
That’s when her journey changed. Instead of being a disabled Chernobyl baby, Tanya had become an adaptive athlete. In 2012, a few months after she got her running legs, Tanya ran her first 5k. A year later she ran her first half marathon. Since then she’s been a non-stop runner, entering races almost every weekend. She was able to run right away, but it took her a couple of months to get thehang of her new running legs. In particular, compared to walking on prostheses, she had to strengthen her core. Many runners have issues with their knees, but for Tanya, it’s her core and lower back that take most of the pressure. With the blade, she had to learn how to balance, how to move her hips in order to will the blades to follow her direction. “When non-adaptive runners run, they don’t have to think about where their feet go. But for me, since I can’t feel where I step, I had to figure out how can I step on a big rock and not fall down.“
It was like a non-adaptive athlete trying to run on stilts. The blade doesn’t have any sensory feedback. Tanya had to teach herself an intermediate for feeling. It was all about controlling her upper body. “When I run, I use so much of my upper body and my lower back. I have to do a lot of ab work to make sure my core is strong.”
Tanya does group strength and conditioning classes at Real Fitness and Conditioning by the KU Med Center. Her current goal is not just to get faster but to run longer distances without stopping. The main challenge is her back. To run a 10k non-stop is the first step. She still has to walk during any distance longer than 6 miles, but she hopes through her conditioning work to overcome this. Like all runners, she’s had her injuries and setbacks. About a year ago she got a new running knee for her leg without the blade. That’s how she came to find herself in the arms of the policeman. On her first run, she was unaware that her prosthesis hadn’t been tightened properly. Something popped and she ended up on the ground with a mild concussion.
Tanya’s accomplishments include two Rock the Parkway half marathons and too many 5ks and 10ks to count. The half marathons were difficult. She has to keep her back in the same position for more than 13 miles. The first 10 miles were OK but the last three seemed impossible because she was in so much physical pain. For days after the race, her lower legs were so swollenand blistered, she couldn’t put on her prostheses. Moisture is the enemy of prosthetics users. Non-adaptive athletes can wear socks that absorb moisture and prevent blisters and rashes. For Tanya, if she’s sweating, the sweat just stays there until she takes off her prostheses.
In 2012 Tanya graduated with a degree in Corporate Communications. Now she’s enrolled at William Jewell working on a master’s degree. She admits, beyond helping others, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She’d like to work with amputees or, barring that, with anybody she can help, especially young girls struggling with self-esteem. She’s already doing it; she regularly gives talks to small groups in the area about her own struggle and how her experiences can help them.
Tanya has developed a special bond with her adoptive home. “I truly love my country. I love Belarus and I miss my family. But I love my adoptive country too, especially Kansas City. But look at me. I’ve been here seven years. Look how successful I’ve become, not just as an athlete but as an individual. I’m confident. I’m not afraid to open up and talk to people about my prostheses. I don’t think people feel sorry for me here, but back home in Belarus, I know they would, and it would close doors for me. I’d have to force myself to talk to people. People treat me there like I’m a special person, and I don’t need that. I’m getting my master’s degree now. And that’s what I try to tell adaptive athletes I meet. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, even if others do. We’re all adaptive. Whether you’re wearing glasses or I’m wearing prostheses, we’re all adapting to this world in some way. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, you’re just bringing yourself down. There are times when I get upset, when I want to have legs. Look, I’m a girl. I’d love to wear heels. I’d love to wear a short dress where my legs would look fantastic. But because I wear prostheses, I get to meet so many people, and hopefully I help people. Chernobyl may have taken my legs from me, but it gave me so much more instead.”
She might not know what she wants to do with her life after graduate school, but she’s certain what her main running goal is: 26.2. She would love to break the female double-amputee record for the marathon. “Will I do it? I don’t know, but I’m going to go for it. I’m going to try my best,” she told me.
What’s certain is that she’ll have many area supporters as she works towards her goals. “When I run races, everybody just comes up to me. ‘Hey Tanya!’ I know so many people here now. Kansas City is my new home, I feel like I’ve grown up here, at least the most important part of my growing up, even if it came a little later than for most people. I love this place.”